Acton Institute Powerblog

Religion, Economics, and the Zoo

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Ota Benga

Sometimes the spirit of an age prevails with such force that it moves the highest pinnacles of cultural influence to support the grossest indignities.

Consider the early 1900s. During this time, the prevailing zeitgeist of Darwinism gave rise to the tragic dehumanization of a Pygmy named Ota Benga. What follows are a few salient points from Cynthia Crossen’s story as published in The Wall Street Journal’s Déjà vu column “How Pygmy Ota Benga Ended Up in Bronx Zoo As Darwinism Dawned” on February 6, 2006. It is also available here.

Ms. Crossen tells the story of how, in 1903, Ota was bought in Africa, brought to the United States, and in 1904 became part of a living display of the stages of evolution at the St. Louis World’s Fair. After the fair and a string of events, he found himself in the monkey cages at the Bronx Zoo.

The New York Times noted, “It is probably a good thing that Benga doesn’t think very deeply. … If he did it isn’t likely that he was very proud of himself when he woke in the morning and found himself under the same roof with the orangutans and monkeys.”

The Rev. James Gordon of the Colored Baptist Minster’s Conference rejected the Times’ opinion. “Our race is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings with souls.”

But the Times brushed aside the criticism: “It is absurd to moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering. … The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.” The director of the zoo didn’t get it either, saying, “He has one of the best rooms in the primate house.”

In 1916 Ota stole a revolver and shot himself. “Evidently he felt that he would rather die than work for a living,” the director offhandedly observed.

I believe that Ms. Crossen’s story calls us back as a society to affirm the basic worth of the human person. Religion, when rightly understood and practiced, can inform other disciplines, such as law, economics, or journalism, of this principle. Our economic model should embrace this affirmation, and will therefore fit with what we know of the motivations of the human person, as a being created to live in freedom and love, to own and to offer up, to create and cooperate, to lead and serve. Without this understanding, we—all of us—could mistakenly believe ourselves to be just the best primates in the zoo.

Ben Sikma

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